By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
Take a Chinese bicycle, attach a stolen chain-saw motor, a plastic bottle for fuel tank, a bent pipe from a bed frame for the exhaust and what have you got?
A riquimbili, Cuba’s home-made motorbike that’s noisy but effective.
It’s no ordinary moped. The lads push souped-up versions to reckless speeds in excess of 62 mph in illegal races on the outskirts of Havana.
Whole families ride them, too, to get around town—mum and dad with a child sandwiched between them.
Easily identified a block away by its ear-piercing din, the riquimbili (pronounced rick-in-billy) is an ingenious improvisation to cope with a chronic public transport shortage Cuba has faced since the collapse of Soviet communism in the early 1990s plunged the island into dire economic straits.
Cubans line up for hours for irregular bus services and travel jam-packed in hump-back buses made from articulated trucks they call “camels”. For a decade, many have had to get used to peddling to work on sturdy Chinese bicycles with no gears.
Enter the riquimbili, cobbled together from scrap-yard parts of old motorbikes mounted on a light bicycle frame, usually powered by a 50 cc to 125 cc two-stroke engine obtained on the black market.
Anything from water pumps and electricity generators to portable fumigator motors will do. Power boosters from old Soviet military tanks are preferred for reliability and strength.
The transmission, controlled with a makeshift clutch, is frequently just a simple roller rubbing against the wheel, or a belt system, though prized riquimbilis use motorbike chains.
Their fuel efficiency is unbeatable. Most do 120 miles per gallon (50 km per litre) of petrol.
“Public transport is so bad, unfortunately. If there were more buses we would no need to make these contraptions,” said bodywork repairman Lazaro Brito.
There’s no fancy chrome or superfluous gadgetry on Brito’s riquimbili, but it does have a bright-red fuel tank cannibalised from a Russian-made Karpati motorbike. The exhaust pipe was hammered out from the metal frame of a hospital bed.
ILLEGAL BUT TOLERATED
Riquimbilis are illegal and their owners face frequent fines. Cuba’s communist government says the do-it-yourself bikes are too dangerous to be on the road, and authorities only issue number plates for factory-made motorbikes.
Police have become more tolerant, however, apparently in response to the worsening transport crisis, and fewer home-made bikes have been confiscated lately.
“The riquimbili resolves our problem,” said Rainier Gonzalez, who works fumigating against mosquitoes for 245 pesos (5.44 pounds) a month, which is Cuba’s average monthly wage.
Gonzalez said police should crack down on people racing the bikes because there have been fatal accidents. But they should not go after Cubans using their use as a means of transport.
“That’s not fair. There are no cars. We cannot buy a car,” he said. Few Cubans have access to private cars built after 1960 and need high-level government approval to buy one.
Riquimbili racers modify their engines to add piston rings and increase cylinder size. They use carburettors from Japanese bikes like the Suzuki for more power and performance, and lower the weight using plastic bottles for gasoline instead of tanks.
“I use mine to get around, go out at night. But if someone wants to race, I’m game and I won’t lose,” said Helder Leal, 22, showing a scar across his stomach from a night-time crash at 65 mph.
“I was going full out and bust my guts,” he said.
Riquimbilis are all about Cuban inventiveness in dealing with bureaucracy and scarcity in a battered socialist economy. Even the name was made up, nobody knows by whom, and cannot be found in any dictionary. There is no agreement on its spelling, or whether it was derived from the names Rick and Billy.
The idea was copied from a pre-World War Two American moped called the Whizzer that was introduced to Cuba by the postal service for telegram dispatchers in the 1940s. Some vintage Whizzers can still be seen puttering along Havana streets.
Older Cubans go for a more stable three-wheeled riquimbili.
Retired chauffeur Juan Almaguer has been riding one for seven years to carry goods for an income. The bike, powered by a 1940s American water pump, can transport 800 pounds (365 kg) of cargo.
“The police have confiscated it three times. They say there have been too many accidents, but my brakes are perfect,” Almaguer said. “But riquimbilis are illegal, so you can’t invest too much money in them.”